Jordan Peterson is part public intellectual, part anti-PC free speech crusader, and part self-help guru. He gained most of his fame opposing bill C-16, a Canadian statute that critics argue polices language and enshrines postmodernism into law. Since speaking out against the bill, Peterson has gained legions of fans online, many of whom attribute his wisdom with helping them sort out their lives as well as their thinking. For him the two questions—how we ought to live and how we ought to think-—are intimately connected. In fact, his two primary professions, therapist on one hand, professor on the other, reflect this duality. The therapist gets to the nitty gritty of how to live, while the professor can wax philosophical. One of his famous bits of advice is to clean your room, as a messy room is a reflection of a messy mind. He believes strongly in the value of personal responsibility-—not living for the moment, but delaying gratification for the sake of future goals and ethical principles. He is also a Christian, believing strongly that most western values are based on Judeo-Christan principles.
What does any of this have to do with veganism? It’s easy to imagine that Peterson could feel some kinship with veganism. At least initially, the choice to go vegan often represents a personal sacrifice made out of a commitment to conscience over convenience. Veganism is compatible with Christianity and its sense of compassion for the weak and downtrodden. However, Peterson is openly hostile to the notion animal rights, calling veganism (or “vay-guhn-ism,” as he would say) a “clueless religion.” The vegan or animal rights movement is by no means a focus of Peterson’s. His whole output on the subject is about fifteen minutes of video and few informal paragraphs dismissing animal rights online. Still, I think Peterson’s attitudes in this area are worth exploring because they connect to more significant areas of his thought. There are three major issues that get in the way of Peterson appraising veganism fairly: his sense that veganism is a secular replacement for religion, his insistence that our ethics should rely on social contract theory and the association of veganism with the left and intersectionalism.
In the classroom lecture posted above, Peterson, upon being asked about whether religion is still a universal human characteristic, points to the example of veganism as a secular movement that has the trappings of religion without the label. It’s interesting how he answers the question about the place of religion in modern society by talking about veganism. He doesn’t even miss a beat, as if this is his go-to example of misguided secular religion. To Peterson, the movement represents “ritual without philosophy” and a “system of values predicated on fundamental assumptions that have to be taken on faith.”
Where I come from these are fighting words. This assumes that the careful utilitarian calculations that most vegans make are merely a ruse to disguise a God-sized hole. I’m sympathetic to the idea that we can be confused about what motivates our actions, but this is a shocking dismissal of rationalism and agency. If you can’t tell the difference between the majority of people that go vegan to measurably reduce animal suffering and greenhouse gas emissions, and those few people who treat veganism as a cult, then there is a real problem.
They say that if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. If you’re Jordan Peterson, then everything looks religious. His claim that veganism is a quasi-religion—a symptom of modern cravings for religious meaning in a secular world—positions it as a challenger to Christianity. The simplistic explanation is that veganism contradicts the bible verse that God gave man dominion over animals (Genesis 1:26-28). This is true, but Peterson’s objections run much deeper.
By Peterson’s account, it is Judaism and Christianity that gives western ethical philosophy its emphasis on individualism. Ethics is based on the twin concepts of rights and responsibilities. This is the essence of what philosopher Thomas Hobbes would call the “social contract.” Rights are an illusion, only a convenient shorthand to describe the covenant society has built between people. I agree not to rob, murder or rape you, and I expect the same in return. My rights are your responsibilities, and vice versa. Since, animals cannot enter into a social contract, they have no rights. I’m sure that Peterson would argue that the reason for the Old Testament’s denial of animal rights is because its authors intuitively understood individualism and the social contract.
There are many criticisms of social contract theory that I could name here, but the most obvious is that it leaves out vulnerable groups in society. Not only animals, but also children and the severely mentally handicapped. We might design a social contract where the strong protect the weak that they care for (e.g. “you will not harm my loved ones, even if they cannot enter into a social contract, and I will not harm yours”), but the most vulnerable—animals that aren’t pets, orphans, the homeless—might not have that protection. Social contract theory is strangely deaf to the suffering of sentient beings. So long as those beings cannot reciprocate, and no one takes them under their wing, they are not worthy of moral concern. Why should “justice for all” be replaced by “justice for those that can mutually agree to it”? The social contract may be a good starting point, but its absolute application would make for a callous world.
For Peterson, vegan philosophy comes from the opposite sides of the tracks. Instead, of the proud western tradition of individualism and the social contract, veganism is supposedly grounded in group rights. The name Will Kymlicka is bandied about a good deal here. Kymlicka is a far-left Canadian academic and vegan. He subscribes to intersectionalism, the idea that all minorities are disenfranchised by an “interlocking matrix of oppression.” The dominant forces in society that oppress minorities in society (racism, sexism, ableism, transphobia) are all linked. Once you accept this, it’s easy to add another “-ism” to describe the oppression of animals. Peter Singer’s term for irrational distinctions made between different types of animals, “speciesism,” was pressed into service. According to intersectionalism, it is no longer just the “patriarchy” oppressing women, it is the “kyriarchy,” oppressing every minority group at once. I could understand Peterson’s hostility to veganism if this is its only source. If veganism is part and parcel with the far-left, postmodernist ideology that he so often fights against, than his opposition may be warranted.
The problem is that this philosophy is embraced by a tiny contingent of the vegan movement. The ideas described above are in no way representative of how most vegans represent their views or motivations. Peterson spends most of the above video flagrantly straw-manning the movement. No, acknowledging animal rights doesn’t mean we have to make animals “full citizens of the polity.” Nor does it mean we must be blind to all distinctions or hierarchies between animals. And no, we vegans are not just weepy saps committed to instating an “ethics of pity.” Why can we not be motivated by justice, fairness and rational compassion? Why are those that take needless suffering seriously considered weak?
Peterson can be a fascinating thinker, a great therapist and a necessary voice in a higher education system that is increasingly a monoculture. This makes his flippant comments on animal rights all the more frustrating. He buys wholeheartedly into misconceptions surrounding animal rights. Veganism is not a cult, or secular religion, or outgrowth of leftist ideology or antithetical to western ethical principles. The ethics of unnecessary suffering are actually pretty simple. Sadly, many people will take the red herrings thrown up by Peterson as confirmation not to take animal rights seriously. I only hope that veganism can be disentangled from these negative associations as awareness grows.